Semi-expert testimony

Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport.

Opportunities to represent the aviation community come from all over the map, and they’re almost always unexpected. More often than not, I agree to participate in the process when I’m asked. You see, I learned long ago that, “no comment,” is a weasel’s way out of getting into a conversation that might be uncomfortable, or potentially unflattering to the interviewee. Big deal, I say. If you’re going to be perceived as a representative of the cause – represent (as the kids say). So my personal policy has always been to accept any request that’s serious and reasonable, regardless if the request comes from a high school journalism student or a cable news company.

If you want to know what I think, just ask. I’m not shy about sharing my views. And I’m not the least bit reticent to point out the difference between my opinion and the facts of the matter. Because for someone who is on the listening (or reading) end of the relationship, it’s important that they know the difference between the two. Accuracy is important when you’re trying to shed light on a technical subject, or clear up the mud that’s been slung around on a topic that at least one participant doesn’t understand as well as they should.

What I never expected was to receive one of the most challenging questions I’ve ever gotten from an acquaintance. And what’s more, an acquaintance who is casually investigating the long-ago death of a relative in the crash of an airliner.

The facts were few. The gentleman who asked for my input knew the year of the crash, and the country the crash happened in, and he knew there were no survivors. That’s pretty much all he had to go on. His request was simple, and perfectly understandable – what happened?

Now you could blow this off as idle chatter, or an excessive affection for mysteries, or even a weekend bender into exploring the family tree that got a bit more intensive than expected. But during our conversation it became clear that this request was more than that. It was a plea for insight that would hopefully fulfill the ultimate goal of bringing peace to an elderly woman who has questions, but no answers.

You see, my friend wasn’t asking for this information to soothe his own psyche. He was asking because he wants to put a relative’s mind at ease in her later years. She is the daughter of one of the victims of the crash, and he was simply trying to understand the events of that fateful day in her life, so that he can explain them to her with conviction. Rumors in the family suggested causes as unlikely as Nazi sabotage. The crash occurred in 1941, so it’s understandable that a fear would persist that the events in Europe might spill over into the New World, too. That was unlikely in my view, but with little to go on, it’s best to gather some additional facts rather than jump to conclusions or fan the flames of irrational thought.

Through the magic of the Internet I was able to determine that the crash occurred in late October 1941. An American DC-3 was flying from a city in New York to a city in Michigan, which would put them over Canadian territory for most of the flight. It was a night flight, and it was raining. The flight was reported at 4,000 feet early in the journey. But just before the crash witnesses reported the airplane circling a field and dropping a flare from no more than 300 feet.

Having flown in that part of the world myself I can tell you that the facts gave me an uncomfortable feeling. Precipitation that far north, that late in the year, makes me think of ice. I don’t like ice. Being a Floridian, I can honestly say I don’t like ice at all.

A newspaper article focusing on the crash acknowledges that two Royal Canadian Air Force officers reported icing in the vicinity of the crash that night.

We will never know for sure what the problem was on that flight, but we can make some reasonable assumptions – which I did. More than that, I made it clear to the gentleman I was dealing with that I was merely providing some insight, not a full-blown crash investigation. And what I told him was this – the flight may have been adversely impacted by the accumulation of ice. I gave him a quick and basic explanation of how ice can affect an airplane’s ability to maintain altitude. I suggested that the newspaper stories of the day provided a reasonable description of what had more than likely led to the crash. The pilots may very well have been searching for a place to do an emergency landing, because of a build-up of ice they could not shake. An RCAF base was located only five miles from the crash site.

Based on what little I know, I would suspect the chain of events went a little like this. Ice was building up on the airframe to an extent that made the crew feel it was time to get on the ground, which led to an attempt at an emergency landing, which led to an inadvertent stall at low altitude that the pilots could not recover from before impacting the ground nose first. It’s tragic for sure. But it’s not Nazi sabotage, and it’s not friendly fire, and it’s not any of the other wild imaginings that can lead people astray and cause additional stress and emotional pain over an already difficult situation.

I was a little concerned, to be honest, that a non-pilot would find the description of what may have happened to be difficult to hear, but to my relief he took it well. In fact, he expressed relief to know that the accident was truly that – an accident. Certainly it was unfortunate, brutal, and fatal for all aboard. But it was plausible and maybe that would be enough to give the daughter of one of the victims some peace of mind after all these years.

Of course the current aviation community gains a certain amount of peace, too. Because there is a now a man out in circulation who does not fly, yet he holds the aviation community in higher esteem because he was able to go to that community with a question, and get a reasonable answer in return for his troubles. His family history was not changed one iota by the encounter, but our future might benefit from it. In fact, if we each go out of our way when given the opportunity to change our collective future for the better, even incrementally, the future for GA will indeed brighten at an increasingly rapid pace – which is good for all concerned. Even for those who don’t fly at all – as this particular experience seems to suggest.

You can reach Jamie at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.

Comments

  1. Tim Bailey says

    Frank, an excellent question, but long answers. There are several de-cing systems available depending on the Aircraft. Jets, ” turbine engine “, and piston engine aircraft have available hot air from the engine, inflatable boots on the aircraft leading edges, an alcohol spray on the prop, an ice melting fluid coming out of a zillon tiny holes in the leading edges, and the latest one is actually an electric current sent into flexible strips on the leading edges. I am a little fuzzy on this one.
    Each one costs much, due to the Federal Govt. requiring very rigid documentation,tests, inspections and authority to install requirements. You need this as unlike a car if it stops working pulling over to the curb is not an option. Then the actual labor costs to install by hand mostly, and unlike automobiles where the cost go down due to many being built on an assembly line, there are very few de-icing systems being built, so the price of each unit is very high compared to mass assembly. Small planes cost allot because of this, they are not mass assembled, lots of human labor involved, a fully equipped new Cirrus can easily exceed a half million dollars.

  2. says

    Why don’t all planes have de-icing like the rear windshields of a car? Seems to me that it would not add that much weight and could save allot of people?

    I just don’t get that. I see the cirrus has de-icing equipment on it for known icing conditions? I also see the cost of a plane or a de-icing kit is very large? Why?

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